8 myths about trade unions and union activities in Singapore


Yesterday, Cham Hui Fong of the NTUC made public their demands to the government on revisions to the CPF. It includes changes to minimum sum, to strengthen worker’s CPF funds and to revise the wage ceiling upwards.


But who is the NTUC that they can make such requests to the government, and require the government to respond?

Here are a couple of facts about the Labour Movement that perhaps need refreshing:


  • Trade unions don’t exist in Singapore

Because many people turn to the Manpower Ministry for action, many people forget the option (and power) of unions. The Ministry of Manpower is a policy maker and an enforcer. Where there is a wrong (an unfair termination for example), and it can be proven… then yes, the MoM has power to make the employer right the wrong. But what if it wasn’t a clear cut wrong? What if an employer dismisses you on grounds that you are no longer needed? This is where union action can come in.

Here’s a list of trade unions in Singapore – http://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/trade-unions/Pages/employee-trade-unions.aspx


  • The NTUC is a union

No, the NTUC is not a union. It is not a supermarket nor an insurance company. It is also not a government agency. It does however, have officials sitting in government (and you can ask why later on). Its principal role is to improve the working conditions of workers and enhance their economic and social status. This it does through trade unions affiliated to it, for example: the Singapore Teachers Union (STU), Singapore Merchant and Mercantile Workers Union (SMMWU) et al. There are about 59 unions in Singapore affiliated to the NTUC.


  • Unions must go to strike in order to bring about worker’s welfare

We read about foreign trade unions going on strike when their negotiations come to deadlock. This sounds politically romantic yes. But in actuality, when strikes are performed it almost always means that negotiations have gone awry and unionists have nothing more to say to the employer. Is such a union then of any use?

The NTUC takes a 360 degree view of a worker, protecting their livelihood rather than just flexing muscle for short term organisational gain (http://www.singapore-window.org/sw05/050501a1.htm)


  • There is a need for unions to be militant in order for government and employers to act

We have seen a number of protests at Hong Lim park of late. Observably, these hardly brought about any change. Gilbert has organised about 2 protests a year since 2011, Han Hui Hui had also organised a variety of such demonstrations. What have they brought about? …well, pretty much nothing except for a bunch of frightened YMCA kids.

That said, the NTUC does shame the government from time to time if administrators have done wrong. Here’s an example of how Labour MP Heng Chee How chided the public sector for poor pay (http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/public-sector-lags-behind-pay-rehired-staff)


  • It is morally legitimate for strikes to disrupt lives because it is for a “greater good”


Well, firstly – you are at risk of putting other jobs on the line. Secondly, if an employer really can’t afford to pay more, then who’s going to pay for employment when they eventually shut?

The “greater good” argument had gotten many people into needless trouble and in modern days of civilised negotiations, why do we still need to go about with disruptions?

Rather than strike, the NTUC uses another weapon of last resort: the Industrial Arbitration Court. Arbitration is our alternative to striking. It is more conciliatory than it is adversarial. Parties in such a court has better chance to carry on a working relationship rather than one that has experienced strike action.

Here’s a list of awards made out to unions made out by the IAC (http://www.iac.gov.sg/Pages/RecentCourtAwards.aspx)


  • Unions do not fight for workers, they’re only on the side of the government

Just because you don’t see them “fighting” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Policies such as the Progressive Wage Model, Fair Considerations Framework, CPF tweaks and various means of increasing welfare and wages requires tremendous battles with different sectors of government.

Throughout history, it has kept an eye on the government on various issues, for example:


  • Trade unions can negotiate on all aspects of employment with employers

They don’t. Practices such as hiring and firing still remain the rights of the employers. Unions cannot fight on who the company can employ or terminate.


  •  The unions are against minimum wage, therefore our salaries will be low

Firstly, it is incorrect to say that there is no minimum wage in Singapore. There is. Secondly, the bulk of the country do not work minimum wage jobs… employers know very well that if the remuneration isn’t good, no one is going to work for them. With low unemployment rates, Singapore is an employee’s market.

Statistics show that salaries continue to rise. Perhaps some of us are not experiencing this. If not, shouldn’t one seek answers to a stagnant salary within, rather than blame a third party?


Here’s a bonus myth for you:

  • I don’t hear about unions acting, thus they must not be doing work

Actually, there are scores of union and labour related news on the papers. It’s just that the unexciting nature of labour news make it easy for us to gloss over it without fanfare. The Government Gazette publishes signed Collective Agreements negotiated by unions. The NTUC MPs debate and question the government extensively in Parliament. Papers and policy positions are published extensively by the entire Labour family, including the NTUC, e2i, TAFEP, National Wages Council et al.

Did you know that Lim Swee Say had once made a threat of disassociation to the PAP? You probably won’t hear about it again until he leaves the system.

Just like how no one talked about how Ong Teng Cheong commissioned a strike until he left us (FYI President Ong was also once the Sec-Gen of the NTUC).


Perhaps it is not that one is not hearing about unions acting, rather one just choses not to read about it.




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About the author

Tay Leong Tan

Tay Leong Tan is a collective of 3 writers. Tay, Leong and Tan. (Who were you expecting?!) We are enthusiastic about labour issues, economics and current affairs in particular.

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